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Interface Seminar: Dreams of Our Perceptual Present

Orit Halpern is the postdoctoral fellow for the Interface seminar, and is definitely an up and coming theorist actively involved in synthesizing digital theory from a well-grounded historical perspective. Her overall project is nothing less than a historical reconstruction of the preconditions of our digital age, and showing how they appear not first in cyberneticists like the famous Norbert Wiener per se, but also in thinkers like Freud and Bergson.Norbert Wiener is often identified as the one thinker primarily responsible for bringing our technological age into being. He did this not by creating any material technology per se, but by creating new form of thought that lead people to create the computer technologies of the digital age we currently live in.In her paper Dreams of Our Perceptual Present she explicates mostly on exactly how "that an epistemic transformation involving the relations betweentemporality, representation, and perception was in process" that led our digital age. In essence, Wiener is trying to overcome the division between memory, communication, and action in an abstraction, and that by modelling these abstractions in both mathematics and in computers, technology is created that in reality overcomes this division, thereby altering (shades of Simondon again!) the very ontology of our age.Wiener, by materializing his abstractions and by giving them being - either in our minds or by technololgy - in effect erases the idea of representation. This is why it is hated so by some of his heirs, Maturana and so on, and has always sat uncomfortably on the notion of information. "For Wiener, memory itself, would become the space tying the past action with the future one; bridging an older concern of presence with a newer problem of transmission and communication"So, the concept of information and its transmission subsumes older notions of memory and representation, taking the passive interpretation of representations into the active process of the creation of information. Orit contrasts this with Barthes, who wants us to think everything is a representation and there is no more real.In a sneak draft preview of some other things she is working on (I suspect a book!), she is looking at how other peopleinfluenced or at least predicted Wiener, in particular Bergson, a French philosopher who focused on how the human's subjective experience of time. This duration can never be adequately expressed in terms of past, present and future. Wiener even explicitly quoted Bergson in cybernetics.In particular, she thinks thetransformation of thinking that so characterizes our age can be transformed on two distinct axes: representation and time.In her previous work, she alluded to how representations in thought, through technology, become "real." Now, for time she's looking at how the earlier Newtonian view of the universe - that there was an objective world with discrete ontological objects and that time was a linear axis that could be divided into discrete moments of time. Because of these properties, assuming one knew all the laws of physics, one could reverse time.However, Wiener (and Priogine) view time as probabilistic - that time is built from moments in the past, each with a probability of producing the future moment. Therefore, since the future involves the resolution of probabilities, you can't in cybernetic time reverse time. Bergson viewed moment in reality as a combination in the "duration" between thought and action.Orit puts it as "Specifically, it is a direct citation to Henri Bergson's "discovery" in Deleuzian terms, made in 1896, that, "Movement, as physical reality in the external world, and the image of psychic reality in consciousness, could no longer be opposed." The discovery that there was a "crisis" in representation, by which thought became a material action. And, by derivation, an image of thought might emerge that eclipses Cartesianisn dualism by way of re-working of materiality and abstraction. (6)"This lack of division between time and thought, and the lack of representational capacity, is easily recognized in computer languages. Computer Languages aren't languages per se "They lack the necessary separation between the signifer and the signified, or between the command and the operation, to truly denote any possible translative capacity." The fact of the matter is each part of a computer language corresponds to some particular action of the computer, and so there can be no ambiguity. This is sort of engineering decision that is dictated by the materiality of computing itself - and thank heavens our languages aren't like computer languages! Except perhaps the imperative!She think thinks that this is recognized by C.S. Pierce, who thought that the "sign" (a picture of a dog) and what is represents (the dog itself) was not an easy binary division, but more complicated and subtle: "Unlike the clear cut separation Saussure imparts between the signifier and its object, Peirce's sign either resembles or actually integrates,becoming one, with its object."She then goes on to talk about how Freud makes notions of storage difficult (after all, if you think Freud's right you can't trust your own memory!) and Bateson's claims how cybernetic systems lead to psychosis - but how some psychosis can actually lead to creativity. Overall, very enjoyable to read, and definitely opened my horizons as regards the hidden history of cybernetics, and by extension, our entire age. The real question to me is: What is the next cybernetics? I suspect it may be this emerging science of networks, or "Web Science" as Berners-Lee puts it. As the infamous truism puts it, may we live in interesting times.


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